How ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Pulled Off a Musical in Season 3

It wasn’t enough for the third season of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” to nab Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd to join the superstar main cast trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. When it came to creating this season’s fully integrated musical, “Death Rattle Dazzle,” the production team’s thinking seemed to be: Nothing short of two powerhouse songwriting duos will do.

Enter Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land”) and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” “Smash”), collectively the winners of every single industry award there is many times over. So how did series showrunner John Hoffman pull it off?

“Justin and I were huge fans of ‘Only Murders,’” Pasek said during a recent Zoom call with all four writers. “And a friend of ours from college, through pure serendipity, told me that she was going to start writing for the show. And I mentioned that we would work for free to work on the show in any capacity.”

“We said, ‘Why not populate the writer squad with the best of Broadway?’” Paul added. “So we just called up some of our favorite writers, including Marc and Scott, our heroes. And they didn’t say no.”

Many songs were borne out of this unique collaboration, including “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?,” an irresistible ear-treat and tongue-twister of a tune performed by Martin. It’s the centerpiece of Oliver Putman’s (Short) new musical about three babies and a dead nanny.

“This is a patter song and Pickwick is such a fantastic word to liberate,” said Wittman. “So that was the taking-off point. And it was the first time we’ve ever written lyrics with a total of four people in a room. So that was really great, it was like being on a game show!”

One of the ongoing jokes of the series is that Oliver has a history of producing turkeys. (A musical based on the 1984 film “Splash!” is but one of his many bad ideas.) “That was a question that we kept having: Is this supposed to be good or is it supposed to be sort of bonkers? And I think the answer was…Yes!” Paul said.

Meryl Streep in the Season 3 finale of “Only Murders in the Building.” (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

“The premise of the musical is ridiculous,” Pasek added. “But we tried to write as well-crafted a song as we could within a ridiculous premise — you know, the idea of accusing three babies of murder.”

The song is not only a writing triumph but also a performance triumph for Martin, who tries out the song in various incarnations, not all of them successful, until a barnstorming rehearsal late in the season. “It was fantastic because they had wrapped on everybody else [in the cast] but no one left because they wanted to watch Steve,” Wittman said.

“They had, like, maybe four takes,” Paul said. “So a lot of what you’re seeing from the cast is literally them reacting. It was this life-imitating-art-imitating-life thing happening.”

The foursome agreed that musicals seem to have traction on TV at the moment, with recent projects like “Schmigadoon!” and the fictional show “Rogers: The Musical” (co-written by Shaiman and Wittman) from “Hawkeye.” But Shaiman doesn’t understand why marketers aren’t forthright about their musicals being…musical.

“It’s a mystery because all these movie musicals that came out in the last few months had commercials with no music, no singing,” he said. “So there still is this fear that people hate musicals. But people love musicals, and everyone wants to make one, and everyone wants to have a musical episode. It’s a good question I don’t know the answer to.”

“It’s a puzzlement,” Wittman quipped.

This story first ran in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

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